BSA Presidential Address 2015

Why Science Education Matters more than Ever

I stand before you as a female professor of physics, a fairly rare combination. Today I want to talk about why we are producing comparatively few scientists in the UK, and why in my own discipline of physics in particular, such a low proportion are women. I’ll aim to cover how the roots of this problem lie in our education system, but also – and perhaps more importantly – in our cultural values in general. To this audience I don’t think I need to spell out that science is both intriguing and important. Not everyone gets that, however, so I’ll also consider why as a nation it matters for us collectively. Why we need to do better for that strange entity “UK plc”.

Education sits at the heart of our society. Tony Blair famously said ‘education, education, education’, essentially as an electioneering slogan. That in itself says that education is tied up in politics. Hence we see successive ministers wanting to take our schools by the scruff of their necks to enable them to claim they are going to raise standards, increase access and increase our global competitiveness. However, unfortunately, all too often what happens is far more about the politics than about the education.

So let me start off by talking about some of the issues I perceive. In the past year or so both the Royal Society and the British Academy have produced reports about education. I am a Fellow of the former and I chaired their Education Committee until a year ago. Unsurprisingly I am not a member of the latter as it’s the Academy for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Their conclusions are strikingly similar. Perhaps you would like to guess which one said:

The Government should set out a strategy which should include:

  • Improving the quality of the quantitative skills teaching in schools and college
  • Continuing to address the fact that too many young people drop maths early
  • Building quantitative expertise in undergraduate students and in the research community
  • Encouraging employers to use the apprenticeship route and of other training routes to improve the quantitative skills of their employees.

These recommendations were in fact in the recent report from the British Academy, Count Us In. They recognize that our schools do not provide the skills our workforce needs with a particular concern, in their case, about the ability of social scientists such as economists to grasp statistics and quantitative skills more generally. Even historians now often need to be able to grasp statistics in presenting their cases!

The report I was involved with at the Royal Society, the so-called Vision Report for Science and Mathematics Education looking at the next 20 years of education made very similar recommendations:

  • Develop rigorous new post-16 courses and qualifications in mathematics, science, engineering and technology to engage students who are studying non-STEM subjects at school or who are training in the workplace, ensuring these meet the changing needs of employers.
  • Increase the amount of time and money invested in practical and problem solving work in science and mathematics education for 5–18 year olds, through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers.

These seem such basic things, why do they still need to be said? And the answer is because in this country, uniquely in the world, we do not make a good job of instructing children in the basics, particularly post-16. Furthermore, we require them to make choices that will affect their whole future careers at an impossibly early age, typically around 14. It seems as if our society expects children at the height of adolescence to make these absolutely fundamental decisions when they are swayed by things of the moment and by cultural and peer group pressure – never mind parents and teachers!

In most other countries around the world, children are simply not allowed not to study maths right up until they leave school. Indeed, they are not allowed to narrow their choices in the drastic way our so-called A level gold standard requires. The introduction of the AS level in 2000 under Curriculum 2000 might have been thought to offer scope to broaden what 16 year olds could do, akin to the Scottish Highers system, but this does not seem to have occurred in practice. Their importance as stand-alone qualifications is being weakened right now. Things aren’t that different in FE Colleges as far as I can judge, although the apprentices I’ve heard about do seem to be given additional teaching in both numeracy and literacy. However I suspect such schemes may be very variable in what they offer.

The qualifications children obtain around Europe, the so-called Baccalaureate, or indeed the high school diploma of the US, require a much broader range of subjects to be studied, so that one cannot simply be pigeon-holed as either on the arts or the science side. This means that everyone has to have some appreciation of the scientific method, how experiments are done and analysed, more numeracy than our ‘artsy’ kids do and so on. The Royal Society has for some years been calling for a shift to a Baccalaureate type exam to be introduced at 18, but so far this has fallen on deaf ears.

It might surprise you that the Royal Society, as the national academy of science and engineering, should wish to broaden education but it is entirely consistent with the idea that citizens need to be empowered to make good decisions in their private lives – be it about vaccinations, mobile phone masts or climate change, to give a few examples. It likewise follows that scientists should also continue to study a broader range of subjects. If science is an unpleasant mystery to the bulk of the population they will not feel at all comfortable with making the decisions they may find necessary day by day. They will not know how to interpret evidence or the voices of opposing experts, sometimes with dubious credentials but used by the media to provide alleged balance.

Understanding the ‘how’ of how science gets done is greatly helped by getting one’s own hands dirty at the bench (or equivalent). Such practical work also helps to develop children’s facility for asking questions and framing hypotheses. Investigation by hands-on work is an excellent way, not only to train the older child in appropriate skills, but to develop the curiosity and ability to question and critique in children of all ages. However, unfortunately schools’ budgets are so squeezed that too often practical work gets short shrift.   The budgets vary hugely but it is hard to see that a school where less than £1 can be found per child per annum is likely to be able to offer a very rich experience. Of course good practical experience also requires confident teachers and a support system of well-qualified technicians.

However, when teachers have to teach beyond their own areas of confidence and competence, it is harder for them to stimulate the students and to answer their questions. This applies both to practical work and to the more formal stuff. In subjects, like my own one of physics, there is a massive shortfall of qualified teachers. Recent figures suggest that around a quarter of physics lessons are taught by a teacher with no relevant post-A level qualification. Many lessons are taught by science teachers, but with degrees in chemistry or biology. Even the department for Education has supported the Institute of Physics’ assertion that to solve the shortage of qualified specialist physics teachers would require a target of around 1000 new physics teachers to join the profession each year. That number represents of the order of a quarter of all the physics graduates in the country. It simply isn’t going to happen, despite golden hellos and other well-intentioned initiatives.

Anyhow, all that ignores the fact that many newly qualified teachers leave the profession within the first few years, disillusioned and overwhelmed by what they find in schools. Not only do teachers leave the profession in substantial numbers, but too many school children are also disillusioned by uninspiring teaching and don’t take science any further than they absolutely have to do. By the way I should stress that in none of my comments am I implying any sort of teacher bashing. Teachers often have to work under extraordinarily difficult conditions. Many deliver amazing things under far from ideal circumstances, issues which include financial matters, the constantly changing burden of curriculum and other bureaucratic challenges due to changing government policy.

At primary school the challenges are rather different from secondary. It’s not about what specialisation of science you are qualified in it’s whether the school has a science specialist at all. Figures suggest that only around 5% of primary school teachers have any sort of specialist science teaching qualification, making it really tough for them to explain even quite basic ideas with confidence. If a school doesn’t have a single science teacher in its entire workforce, there may be none qualified or confident with whom to talk the ideas through. This is not likely to get children off to a good start in their exploration of the world around them. This is one of the reasons why broader education to 18 could make such a big difference. Some greater awareness of what science is all about and more confidence in numerical manipulation, could only be good for aspiring teachers who have to teach these ideas to the kids in their classes.

Comprehension of how scientists pose questions, and how to construct the hypotheses that they want to go on to test, might enable teachers and the public alike to get to grips with what it is that scientists are seeking when testing what is happening to carbon dioxide levels, deciding whether the data is or isn’t sufficient to identify the Higgs Boson or to claim that neutrinos are travelling faster than light. I hesitate to call this getting to grips with the scientific method, because historians of science are exercised about the phrase, but as a shorthand that’s not a bad way to describe it. Understanding how scientists go about their daily business might remove some of the mystique, with its accompanying fear, but also enable a greater ability to critique what is heard on the news or read in the newspaper. This understanding has to start at school and the teachers as well as the pupils need to be able to grasp it.

Let me now return to the question of why this country seems so committed to dividing us up into sheep and goats, science and arts people, something attendees at this conference may well feel irritated by, as do I. The Two Cultures argument is hackneyed and well worked over, but there is no point disputing there is more than a grain of truth in it. Whether Snow and Leavis had such a violent disagreement down to politics, education or some other ideology is not really the point. The reality is too often we do find ourselves apparently in opposing camps – and our culture these days always makes it seem as if the scientists are the outsiders. We may be mocked if our knowledge of Shakespeare or Austen isn’t perfect, but it is still OK to say ‘I could never do maths at school’. That is not how it should be!

Personally I equally get fed up with being told ‘you must be so clever to be a physicist’ as if I’m a superbeing rather than just someone who finds the subject exciting and has worked hard at it all my life. As a physicist I would not claim to be cleverer per se than a historian – we’re just interested in different things. The difference is that I would also expect to be able to read, say, David Reynolds fascinating latest book on the aftermath of the Great War, The Long Shadow – a book I recently did indeed read – whereas I suspect the historian might be more likely to baulk even at physics books intended for a general audience, such as Lisa Randall’s book about the LHC and more, Knocking on Heaven’s Door (which I have also read and indeed reviewed).

However, I think the problems of these divisions between the two camps started long before CP Snow introduced that infamous phrase of The Two Cultures. I contend we need to look back to the Victorians at least, at the development of their education system and issues to do with class itself, which of course obsessed many Victorians. Let us turn back to the argument of two Victorian giants, the scientist Thomas Huxley, often known as Darwin’s bulldog for his devotion to supporting the theory of evolution, and Matthew Arnold the poet and educator.

Thomas H. Huxley 1880

From the time that the first suggestion to introduce physical science into ordinary education was timidly whispered, until now, the advocates of scientific education have met with opposition of two kinds. On the one hand, they have been pooh-poohed by the men of business who pride themselves on being the representatives of practicality; while, on the other hand, they have been excommunicated by the classical scholars, in their capacity of Levites in charge of the ark of culture and monopolists of liberal education.

Matthew Arnold 1883

….and that, while we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modern science, and to give ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters;

The great results of the scientific investigation of nature we are agreed upon knowing, but how much of our study are we bound to give to the processes by which those results are reached?

Even then it is portrayed as an either/or. That people had to decide they were one thing or the other with little accommodation. But in particular note the superiority in the message Arnold gives. If you read what he says in full, it is clear that he feels you can’t understand the meaning of the science without a classical education which is therefore ‘superior’. I fear these attitudes persist today and is deeply damaging to our cultural values. As a sideline we should note it was in fact Matthew Arnold who introduced the idea of culture as we currently use it, through his short book Culture and Anarchy.

So why do I think there is a class basis in any of this? It is no accident that many of the 19th century scientists were of relatively humble birth – Faraday, notably, also Huxley who was always very conscious of this. Both these illustrious scientists had received their education outside the norm of the time at Oxbridge; Faraday as an apprentice; Huxley, very much an autodidact who trained in medicine through various short-term apprenticeships or, as I guess we would call them now, internships with family members. Additionally, there were class distinctions arising from the idea that ‘making things’ was not something gentleman did. This harks right back to the ancient Greeks, who distinguished between episteme, roughly translated as natural philosophy or knowledge, and techne, translated as craft. So craft, making things and making things work, appears always to have been seen as less pure, less worthy, possibly simply because it involved getting your hands dirty. Such distinctions can also be seen in the lower class calling of barber surgeon who very much used their hands, versus the university-educated physician. If you want a good example of this sort of class distinction for medics, it can be found in the pages of George Elliot’s Middlemarch.

So, look, you can see I’m literate, I’m citing a classic novel. Pretty astonishing given I’m a scientist.

If you consider the world today, not the Victorian world, and look at our culture, to most people culture means the arts: music, plays, and the visual arts. Possibly including the BBC, although that is now under attack itself. Science isn’t often included in the popular definition of culture and that is a problem for science, scientists and – I would argue – for citizens more broadly. This is a charge levelled against the media in general. Take a programme like Today. In discussions about climate change, for instance, presenters aren’t necessarily up to speed and ‘balance’ can mean minority views get as much airtime as those espoused by 99% of the scientists involved. Scientists don’t often get asked to appear on mainstream ‘cultural’ programmes.

For myself, I will always tend to accept invitations to appear on programmes where I feel I can sneak some science into non-science programmes. Appearing on the Life Scientific means that those who listen are probably people like you, people who are interested in science although not necessarily scientists. But appearing on Private Passions on Radio 3 – which I have just recorded at the start of this week – offers a very different opportunity to talk about what excites me. I think such opportunities are crucially important both because I can slip some science into people’s living rooms when they aren’t necessarily expecting it, and also because – once again – it demonstrates that scientists aren’t other, a race apart who are Philistines (another phrase that derives from Matthew Arnold’s book on culture) lacking in culture or artistic appreciation.

But if the media is stuffed full of people who aren’t perhaps so well-rounded, by people who either don’t like or actively are frightened of science because they don’t understand it, then we scientists are condemned to be that ‘other’, apparently a race apart. When I appeared on Start the Week, during the time when Andrew Marr was in charge, I’d been invited on the back of a talk I was giving entitled ‘Alzheimer’s Disease and Yoghurt: A Physicist’s Exploration of Proteins’. The producer had obviously been intrigued by the title, but Andrew himself expressed his unease before we went on air. After he’d invited me to explain, live, what this was all about you could hear his audible sigh of relief as he said ‘Well I think I understood that’. Meanwhile, as poetry of the civil war and the history of Jerusalem were discussed there was none of that unease – but I was expected to contribute on equal terms.

This I think typifies the problem, without meaning to bash the BBC, let alone Andrew Marr in particular. Many of the people who work there, upfront or in the back rooms, have little understanding or love of science and so, inevitably, it gets downplayed. There are science programmes, labelled as such, and there are the rest. Those who can ‘crossover’ are fairly thin on the ground, although undoubtedly they exist and do sterling work. Indeed, one of the many things that I think is wonderful about this festival is that it does get well reported in the media. The newspapers are rather the same in the paucity of scientists on their staff. At the root of all of this I believe is our education system as I indicated before: it fails to ensure that everyone has some confidence that science is relevant to them and that they are comfortable with thinking about it.

It is not, in my view, that it matters whether or not you know, can quote let alone could constructively use the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, that shibboleth that CP Snow made so much of. It is that you would feel comfortable that such a law existed and that it means there is little point trying to dream up a perpetual motion machine. Equally it is important for your daily life that you know how to read a graph or know that statistics matters when it comes to analysing the results of drug trials or what the risks of surgery really mean.  These things aren’t necessarily easy or straightforward to absorb, but they really matter. As scientists we have a duty to explain them as carefully as we can and to make sure that we don’t obfuscate what we do.

As an example let me show you the work of my Cambridge colleague, indeed a colleague from the College of which I am Master, Churchill College: David Spiegelhalter. He has attempted to provide very visual demonstrations of the risks of different activities, using the concept of a micromort. A micromort represents a one in a million chance of death, and roughly is the average “ration” of lethal risk that people spend each day so it’s a useful figure to allow comparisons to be made. But people may have very misleading conceptions of what these risks are. One can make useful comparisons in units that we can relate to for different kinds of activities.

Some of you may remember the uproar that the then chair of the Government Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, David Nutt occasioned when he said

“There is not much difference between horse riding and ecstasy. Making riding illegal would completely prevent all these harms and would be, in practice, very easy to do. This attitude raises the critical question of why society tolerates – indeed encourages – certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others, such as drug use.”

In terms of risk, that is of course correct, but politically it was regarded as totally unacceptable and he was sacked from his job as chair. That highlights a different issue, one that I don’t have time to go into but that is hugely important, the difference between science evidence and political decisions. This is one that I fear not all scientists fully grasp but it really matters if the scientific community is to be influential when passing on scientific advice to policy-makers.

And let me give you one final example of the ‘failure’ of mainstream media to manage to see science as part of our mainstream society and culture, the Woman’s Hour 100 women in 2013. 100 women, of which only a measly three could even loosely be associated with science, and not one of them a practicing scientist. Why? Well I would hazard a guess it is because those people who drew up the list went with the obvious names they knew, very largely activists and journalists. These may be entirely laudable and highly deserving individuals, but they do not represent a real cross-section of society. Don’t provide a balanced list of careers for schoolchildren to choose from. Those categories are part of an ‘in group’ and scientists just don’t feature in there.

OK, time to move away from media perceptions and balance to something else that is close to my heart and that the Woman’s Hour 100 list hints at: gender issues. Where are the women in science? Clearly some of you are here, but the numbers – particularly in the physical sciences – remain stubbornly low. Once again I think the problems begin at school and with our education system.

The IOP has been doing some interesting data gathering about how schools impact on children’s choices. Shockingly they discovered that close on 50% of state co-educational schools send not a single girl on to do Physics A level. You might argue that this is simply because girls don’t like physics and so why should they wish to go further, but when you realise that girls are 2 ½ times as likely to study physics at A level if they went to a single sex school that argument looks a bit thin. Nevertheless, having been discussing these findings for some time on Radio 4’s Today programme with a well-known female headteacher, I was shocked when she finished off by saying lamely ‘Maybe girls just don’t like Physics’ as if the rest of the conversation had not happened. I think she is demonstration that that perception is rooted deep in many teachers’ minds – and it then goes on to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The attitude of leaders in schools really matters.

We need to change mind sets of teachers and parents alike. The problems of how we introduce gender stereotyping for our children start incredibly early. In fact the psychologist Cordelia Fine would say essentially from birth. Give a newborn baby to someone to hold, and how they react will depend on whether they believe it’s a boy or girl. They will be much more vigorously physical if they think it’s a boy, bouncing it up and down, but not if they believe it’s a girl. Once it’s a question of buying toys, again all too often there is stereotyping from the early years. There have been increasing levels of complaint about the way stores display toys, and there is less of a tendency actually to list them as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ than there used to be, but everyone understands that pink means girl don’t they. Interestingly, this association of pink with girls is relatively recent starting from around the 1920s. Before that pink, like red, was seen as a masculine colour. How times change.

There’s nothing wrong with pink, but equally there’s nothing wrong with yellow, blue, green or any of the other colours of the rainbow and it is just one part of lazy stereotyping. What about the words used to describe the toys we buy in job advertisements? A wordle showed just how gendered these were too. You can see that boys’ ads are dominated by power and battle, whereas girls seem to be expected to get through life on love and magic. I’m sorry, I don’t think that will get them very far and whereas I am no fan of battles the idea that active behaviour is to be encouraged as opposed to being passive and relying on magic to solve your problems, seems to me to be the real distinction between how things are being portrayed here for the genders.

Does this matter? I know there are people who think that what children do at 4 is irrelevant to their A level choices, but I’m not so sure. The evidence suggests that many children make up their minds, certainly about what they don’t want to do around the time they go to secondary school. There was a study published in the last couple of weeks by National Rail showing girls as young as 7 are already closing their minds to engineering. If they have never had the opportunity to take things to pieces and build them up again; if they have always just played with dolls and dolls in a stereotypically female situation such as worrying about hair style or making tea, then how can they imagine themselves as engineers or chemists? We need to offer all children a wide range of opportunities to explore their world and to decide what really interests them. And, it isn’t just girls these actions may affect. We should note that boys are discouraged from other disciplines as the IOP studies showed. Subjects like English and Psychology are almost as badly gendered as Physics in the opposite direction: this again seems to be down to cultural expectations and subtle pressures.

Toys are just the start of the problem that children may encounter by way of stereotyping. I am astonished by how many people tell me a girl they know has been told that maths isn’t for them, or that girls are no good at maths or even that they do maths like a boy. All these messages will sink in subliminally and discourage the child. They may be perfectly good at the subject, and girls’ exam results in maths and physics are just as good if not better than the boys, but it doesn’t encourage them to want to pursue it. If additionally teachers are not primed to ensure that both genders get equal air time in the classroom, that boys don’t hog the apparatus etc then it is all too easy to see why A level choices can end up so skewed.

If I go back to where I started, namely that not enough students stick with maths post-16, that isn’t a statement about gender. But it is the case that study after study says we are not producing enough 18 year olds and graduates with skills in STEM subjects and one easy way to get more would be to make sure that half the population are not put off before they ever start. These are indeed two different issues but both need to be addressed.

Now more and more people need to use numeracy, modelling and to be comfortable with figures and analytical thinking as we get increasingly data-rich; the ability to handle and understand what the data means is vital in so many different directions. It is no longer a case that you can get by in most jobs without being computer literate and probably also able to manipulate spreadsheets and databases. It is fundamentally important to recognize that computers are neither magic nor intelligent and that the operator has control.

But we need to make sure additionally, that many more people feel comfortable about science, whether or not they use it in their workplaces. Because science is so integral in our everyday lives, having an attitude that it’s all nasty, scary and dangerous stuff is enormously unhelpful if not positively dangerous. Taking an international perspective we know how some people believe something as simple as polio vaccination can’t be what it says but is a Western plot to do something awful to Muslims. If you don’t understand what’s going on it is easy to be misled. But unfortunately the furore over the MMR vaccination in this country wasn’t entirely different. A failure to understand what the science was saying or how to critique what was being touted around coupled with sloppy journalism and fear winning over fact meant that many children did not get this vital injection. A few, luckily only a few, died as a result but many more succumbed less seriously to the disease in measles epidemics. On the other hand, the recent Ebola vaccination stunning success story shows how science, hand in hand with local government, can really make a difference.

We should be working hard to ensure parents are not bamboozled by basic facts or led astray by those who have personal axes to grind, or indeed money to make. This is no small order, but if politicians would buy into the idea that science should be given higher priority for all up to age 18, maybe we would see a wiser population who could handle such complex issues with more confidence.

But of course education does not stop at 18, or even 21. You are here because you want to keep on learning and our society has to make that easy. Or perhaps I mean easier. The conversation between practicing scientists and the general public, indeed between scientists from different disciplines, has never been more important. There have been various progressions in ‘received wisdom’ about how interactions between scientists and the public should take place, progressing through different acronyms including Public Awareness of Science (PAS) and currently Public Engagement with science (PES). The former was still fairly passive, the idea that science fairs and sci-cafes might interest the public sufficiently to learn more. Now the more active sphere of public engagement is seen as a better model (and presumably this too will evolve). In this case the public’s views are actively sought to see what the issues are for them as new technology comes along.

This is of course hugely important. As our ability to interface practically everything with the internet takes off, there are many ethical, legal and practical questions to address. Science may have ‘the answer’, yet it may turn out to be an answer that is unacceptable to the vast majority of people. What about how to handle the vast amount of data that are being accumulated against our names – what should be done about that which, on the one hand may enable doctors to make rapid judgements about safe treatments for our health yet could also be horribly misused by others. The Nuffield Committee for Bioethics recently explored that conundrum.

There are issues around the safety of nanotechnology and genetic modification, technologies that have been around for a while yet which still, particularly in the latter case, have the potential to raise extreme views. How can the arguments be handled and who is best placed to do this? Scientists clearly have a vital role to play in this debate but the debates cannot be had simply between members of the scientific community. A new acronym has recently appeared: RRI standing for Responsible Research and Innovation to try to ensure that the right questions are asked about novel technologies at the right time. As the EU website puts it

‘Responsible research and innovation is an approach that anticipates and assesses potential implications and societal expectations with regard to research and innovation, with the aim to foster the design of inclusive and sustainable research and innovation.’

This involves the engagement of all parties: scientists and citizens, policy-makers and business. But it also requires the citizens (and indeed the policy-makers) to feel confident that they understand enough of the science to make reasoned judgements.

Policy-makers, including MPs themselves, are a bunch of people who – like employees at the BBC – have a disappointingly low proportion of scientists in their midst. This is another area where problems arise. For scientists and policy-makers to engage in constructive conversation requires both sides to be capable of understanding the words and positions of the other. That fault of course does not lie just with the civil servants. Scientists also have to recognize that facts are not the only thing on which politicians will base their decisions: financial consequences, local votes and timescales of outcomes compared with the date of the next election are just a few of the other headings that will be at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, as a scientist, just as I need to put time and energy into interactions with the public it is important that I and other scientists engage with politicians. The latter certainly won’t get things right without the facts so one has to try to work with them.

Finally, what about the role of the BSA Science Festival. The fact that thousands of people turn up to this event each year shows what an appetite there is, from all sections of the population, to access cutting edge science and to think about its implications. But this is a group who have self-identified with science. We need to get the message out about the fun and the importance of science to a far greater proportion of the population. For each of us, whether you are yourself a scientist or a non-scientist who is an aficionado of science, our task is to spread the word of the importance of the science itself and of the need to increase overall scientific literacy and confidence in all parts of the population.

We’ve moved a long way from the attitudes at the mid to late 18th century when science, poetry and art were all seen as a coherent whole. Notable poets such as Wordsworth wrote about modern developments such as ballooning, artists such as Wright of Derby painted scientific experiments as with this one of the air-pump. Let me leave you with the words of one of my heroes, Erasmus Darwin. Much less famous than his grandson Charles, he was a physician who dabbled in both poetry and science and invention. He was a true polymath of a kind it is impossible to imagine today. His poetry may be fairly excruciating to modern ears, with the poem the Love of the Plants written in what are known as ‘heroic couplets; but the fact that he attempted a poem running to book length on the sexual behaviour of plants and Linnean classification is an amazing concept. And impossible to imagine today.

We have a long way to go to get our education system producing a citizenry who are comfortable across the disciplines and with a majority of whom no longer fear maths and science but are willing to embrace it when needed. We need an informed citizenship who understand how science operates more than ones stuffed full of disparate facts they can’t pull together. I hope that politicians heed the centrality of this message for all our sakes.

Thank you.